Dying sounds pretty good, to be honest. You get to float about outside your body, feel painless and happy, and you may even see Paradise itself. The only drawback is that pesky part at the end where you never wake up again.
But for a surprising amount of people, death is not the once-in-a-lifetime event it claims to be. Near-death experiences (NDEs), where people get perilously close to the Great Beyond only to get pulled back at the last second, have been described around the globe for eons. But despite – or more likely because of – our inability to find a definitive explanation, NDEs remain one of the most fascinating phenomena in the human experience.
There’s an obvious problem when it comes to studying NDEs scientifically. Researchers can’t predict when someone is going to suddenly die – not without a few major ethics violations, anyway – so studies on NDEs usually have to take the form of hunting down people who’ve had them and asking what it was like.
But there might be another way to study NDEs in humans. A study published this year in the journal Mindfulness has found a group of people who can apparently induce near-death experiences at will: Buddhist monks highly proficient in meditation.
Over a period of three years, the research followed 12 Buddhist monks and laypeople known to be advanced meditators. To be eligible for the study, meditation practitioners had to score at least seven – the standard cut-off for identifying a near-death experience – on the Greyson NDE Scale during their most recent meditation-induced NDE. They also had to be free from any ongoing psychiatric problems and abstain from drugs (which makes sense).
Then, in a series of semi-structured interviews, the team assessed their NDEs and the themes and phases they experienced.
“All participants reported that the MI-NDE began with them consciously reducing the degree of connection to their physical worldly body. Participants referred to this as a process of 'gradual dissolution'… 'letting go of body'… or 'becoming untied,'” describes the study.
“[D]uring the next phase of the MI-NDE, they ceased to be aware of time and space. More specifically… they realised that time and space are relative phenomena that ultimately do not exist,” the report continues. “[T]he next phase of the MI-NDE involved encounters with non-worldly realms and beings… realms of 'torture'… where the beings 'hang from ropes'… and 'hungry ghost realms'".
Finally, participants described entering a state of “emptiness”, “voidness”, and “non-self”.
But unlike a normal NDE, the meditators remained aware and in control of the phenomenon – some could even decide for themselves the content and duration of the experience. And even more amazingly, it seems NDEs may be something you can learn, and improve with practice.
Although the results are interesting, it’s important to note the study had a few limitations. It relied exclusively on self-reported experiences, and since advanced Buddhist meditation practitioners are not exactly easy to come by, the sample was small. The study also notes that, particularly without previous experience of a true NDE, the participants may be unable to accurately rate their experiences on a scale built outside the meditative Buddhist tradition. Nevertheless, the researchers hope their findings can pave the way for future research into this mysterious phenomenon.
“A key implication is that the present study shows it would be feasible – and ethical – for future research to recruit advanced meditators to assess real-time changes in a person’s neurological activity during a near-death experience,” Van Gordon explained to PsyPost. “To date, the health risks and ethical challenges associated with conducting such a study in those experiencing a regular near-death experience have made this impossible.”